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For some people, salary is simply how the rent gets paid. For others, it's a measure of who they are, a key comparison point with their peers. In either case, it's nearly impossible to find people who believe they're being paid what they deserve.
Surprisingly, though, the truth is that you're probably earning fair pay for your skills and experience. For the most part, your compensation is a reflection of the company you work for, the industry you chose, and your performance and contribution to that company. If you are a first-year, untrained sales assistant, you shouldn't expect to earn the same salary as your old college roommate, the first-year programming analyst. First-year apples have a different value to the marketplace than first-year oranges. Meantime, senior-level people, for their part, earn increases at different rates for different but equally sensible reasons. Doing the same job year after year, when you stop to think about it, deserves no more than a standard cost-of-living increase. It's the innovators, whose commitment and creativity have brought something extra to the table, who snag the big raises. Companies reward these people because they are worth holding onto—and you shouldn't confuse ten years of experience with one year of experience, ten times over.
But, of course, there are exceptions to that rule. It's entirely possible that you really are underpaid. Generally, there are several categories of employees who are making less than they should be. You're likely to be underpaid if:
• You've been with the same company for many years. While others around you have been job-hopping every few years and seeing 12-15 percent raises with each new company, you’ve been chugging along with the standard 4-6 percent annual bump. Do the math.
• You made a late-career change that required a retrogressive move. When you "start over," you're bound to fall behind you peers. But if the big switch moved you into a field that's your heart’s desire, your earnings will eventually catch up and may very well exceed your expectations. There is a distinct correlation between doing a job you love and being well compensated.
• You found your current position through a recruiter. Just think about it: If your employer had to pay anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of your starting salary to a recruiter, there was that much less in the pot to go to you.
• You're one of the noble but underpaid minions of the not-for-profit world. Notorious bank robber Willie Sutton is said to have explained that he robbed banks because that's where the money was, and, conversely, the not-for-profit world is where the money isn't. But you knew that when you started.
So what if you're in one of the groups of underpaid people, if it seems possible that you're actually right in feeling—as everyone does—that you're underpaid? What's the best way to ask for a salary adjustment?
You could just stay in place, continue to collect your deflated paycheck, and comfort yourself by occasionally bitching to sympathetic friends about how unappreciated you are at work. But you'll probably be better off if you develop a specific course of action designed to elevate your income. First, you could consider transitioning into a big-money industry in a major metropolitan market—publishers of big consumer magazines, the major broadcast networks, multimedia conglomerates will always pay better than their smalltime counterparts, and so, too, will the job in New York always get you more than the one in Podunk. You could also pack up your skills and move to the competition. You'd be giving up some stability, but you'd probably get nearly 15 percent more for the same job you're already doing. Or, finally, you could ask your boss for a raise.
That can be a challenge. Talking about money is uncomfortable for many people, and asking for more money can be excruciating. Some people are so squeamish discussing money that they undervalue themselves in salary discussions. But, ultimately, talking turkey is the price of doing business if you want to maximize your potential and go for top dollar.
First you should remember some key things not to say.
• Don't tell your boss that you need more money because you can't pay your rent, afford a vacation, buy your mother a birthday present, or anything like that. Your personal reasons for needing more money are not your employer's problem, and airing these issues at work serves only to illustrate your lack of judgment and poor financial-management skills.
• You also shouldn't demand a raise because so-and-so who does the same job earns more. It's never a good idea to bring colleagues into your salary negotiations. The salary of another employee is none of your business, and you can’t necessarily believe what they have told you about what they earn. People never speak truthfully about how much sex they're having or how much money they make. If you can't put forth a convincing case for why you deserve a raise based on your own merits, you probably don't deserve one.
• Also don't argue for a raise based upon a trade-magazine salary survey reporting that others doing your job are making more. It's way too hostile an approach, and there's also no reason to trust the data. Employers often refuse to answer questions about what they pay, and, again, employees will often lie. You're just picking a fight without really having a good argument to back your claim.
• Finally, don't threaten to quit if you don't get your raise. Nobody likes a gun held to his or her head, and your employer is no exception. And what are you doing to do if you don't get your raise? Are you really prepared to walk out? If not, your credibility will be as diminished—as will management's opinion of you, for attempting such a lame ploy.
But what are some good ways to ask for a raise? It varies, of course, depending on the compensation structure and culture of your company, your position, your performance evaluation, and the mood of your boss on the day you pop the question. Regardless of specifics, though, there are some general strategies that can improve your chances of improving your paycheck.
• To start with, do a great job. No kidding—the fastest and best way to get substantial raises is to do an unquestionably spectacular job. In fact, if you consistently outperform, outdo, and outshine comparable employees you won’t have to ask for raises. They will be given to you, along with spot bonuses and other perks.
• If you choose to take that step into your boss's office to ask for more money, be sure that you do so armed with documentation. If you are asking for an out-of-schedule raise, be prepared to present tangible evidence of how your work has exceeded the parameters of your current job description. Wherever possible, be quantitative in expressing your additional contribution to the company—be ready to tell your boss that you increased profits by X percent, cut expenses by Y, and improved efficiency by Z.
• And remember that annual increases are another matter. If your face drops when your boss calls you into his office to tell you the amount of your annual increase, you need to initiate a candid discussion about what performance is required by you to ensure more substantial future salary increases. In this case, be sure to elicit quantitative benchmarks from your boss.
While you're waiting for that next, better annual raise to kick in, at least take comfort in the fact that most media companies don't seek to lowball their employees. Customary salary ranges are hardly proprietary information, given the fluid nature of personnel in publishing and media. Your company wants you to feel wanted and appreciated and not have you view it—or speak of it—as flinty cheapskates. The likelihood is that you are compensated commensurate with your skills and experience. If you are convinced that you’re not, you have recourse. Go for it.
Susan A. Patton is a human-resources consultant to media companies including Conde Nast Publications, American Express Publishing, The Knot, and ASI as well as a personal career coach to senior media executives.